The American psychologist Jerome Bruner, strongly influenced by the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygostky, further developed and applied his ideas in the field of education. Bruner declared that Vygotsky has convinced him about the impossibility of understanding the concept of human development in any other way than as a process of assistance, of collaboration between child and adult, where the adult is taking up the role of a sociocultural mediator. Due to its distinct features, we consider the theory to be a sociocultural constructivist one.

Bruner believed that when children start to learn new concepts, they need help from teachers and other adults in the form of active support. To begin with, they are dependent on their adult support, but as they become more independent in their thinking and acquire new skills and knowledge, the support can be gradually faded. This form of structured interaction between the child and the adult is reminiscent of the scaffolding that supports the construction of a building. It is gradually dismantled as the work is completed.

In a very specific way, scaffolding represents a reduction in the many choices a child might face, so that they become focused only on acquiring the skill or knowledge that is required. The simplistic elegance of Brunerís sociocultural theory means that scaffolding can be applied across all sectors, for all ages and for all topics of learning.

Principles of the learning process:

1.     Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).

2.     Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).

3.     Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).

4.     The progression of rewards as well as punishments


Bruner (1966) was concerned with how knowledge is represented and organized through different modes of thinking (or representation). In his research on the cognitive development of children, Jerome Bruner proposed three modes of representation:

      Enactive representation (action-based)

      Iconic representation (image-based)

      Symbolic representation (language-based)

Modes of Mental Representation

Brunerís sociocultural constructivist theory suggests it is effective when faced with new material to follow a progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation; this holds true even for adult learners.

Moreover, his work also implies that a learner even of a very young age is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organised appropriately, in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Piaget and other stage theorists.

Enactive (0 - 1 year)

The first kind of memory. This mode is used within the first year of life (corresponding with Piagetís sensorimotor stage). Thinking is based entirely on physical actions, and infants learn by doing, rather than by internal representation (or thinking).

It involves encoding physical action-based information and storing it in our memory. For example, in the form of movement as a muscle memory, a baby might remember the action of shaking a rattle.

This mode continues later in many physical activities, such as learning to ride a bike.

Many adults can perform a variety of motor tasks (typing, sewing a shirt, operating a lawn mower) that they would find difficult to describe in iconic (picture) or symbolic (word) form.

Iconic (1 - 6 years)

Information is stored as sensory images (icons), usually visual ones, like pictures in the mind. For some, this is conscious; others say they donít experience it.

This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany the verbal information.

Thinking is also based on the use of other mental images (icons), such as hearing, smell or touch.

Symbolic (7 years onwards)

This develops last. This is where information is stored in the form of a code or symbol, such as language. This mode is acquired around six to seven years-old (corresponding to Piagetís concrete operational stage).

In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems, such as music.

Symbols are flexible in that they can be manipulated, ordered, classified, etc. so the user isnít constrained by actions or images (which have a fixed relation to that which they represent).

Language implications of Bruner's Theory

Language is important for the increased ability to deal with abstract concepts. Jerome Bruner argues that language can code stimuli and free an individual from the constraints of dealing only with appearances, to provide a more complex yet flexible cognition.

Bruner is poignant about language and how this affects cognition within this theory of sociocultural learning development. It is pertinent to any success of a child to identify the differences between adult language and the language used by children. With the child being younger, they need time to advance not only their conceptual learning but their language as well. Thus, teachers and parents alike are encouraged to envelop the scaffolding method of communication which is a strategy aimed to simplifying tasks within learning by making smaller steps, all leading to the final outcome. This aids in maintaining any frustration while keeping in mind what is important throughout the learning process.

The use of words can aid the development of the concepts they represent and can remove the constraints of the ďhere and nowĒ concept. Bruner views the infant as an intelligent and active problem solver from birth, with intellectual abilities basically similar to those of the mature adult.


Bruner (1960) opposed Piaget's notion of readiness. He argued that schools waste time trying to match the complexity of subject material to a child's cognitive stage of development.

This means students are held back by teachers as certain topics are deemed too difficult to understand and must be taught when the teacher believes the child has reached the appropriate stage of cognitive maturity.

The Spiral Curriculum

Bruner (1960) adopts a different view and believes a child (of any age) is capable of understanding complex information. Bruner (1960) explained how this was possible through the concept of the spiral curriculum. This involved information being structured so that complex ideas can be taught at a simplified level first, and then re-visited at more complex levels later on.

Therefore, subjects would be taught at levels of gradually increasing difficultly (hence the spiral analogy). Ideally, teaching his way should lead to children being able to solve problems by themselves.

Discovery Learning

Bruner (1961) proposes that learners construct their own knowledge and do this by organizing and categorizing information using a coding system. Bruner believed that the most effective way to develop a coding system is to discover it rather than being told by the teacher.

The concept of discovery learning implies that students construct their own knowledge for themselves (also known as a constructivist approach).

The role of the teacher should not be to teach information by rote learning, but instead to facilitate the learning process. This means that a good teacher will design lessons that help students discover the relationship between bits of information.

To do this a teacher must give students the information they need, but without organizing for them. The use of the spiral curriculum can aid the process of discovery learning.


Both Bruner and Vygotsky emphasize a child's environment, especially the social environment, more than Piaget did. Both agree that adults should play an active role in assisting the child's learning.

Bruner, like Vygotsky, emphasized the social nature of learning, citing that other people should help a child develop skills through the process of scaffolding.

'Scaffolding refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring' (Bruner, 1978, p. 19).

He was especially interested in the characteristics of people whom he considered to have achieved their potential as individuals.

The term scaffolding first appeared in the literature when Wood, Bruner, and Ross described how tutors' interacted with a preschooler to help them solve a block reconstruction problem (Wood et al., 1976).

The concept of scaffolding is very similar to Vygotsky's notion of the zone of proximal development, and it's not uncommon for the terms to be used interchangeably.

Scaffolding involves helpful, structured interaction between an adult and a child with the aim of helping the child achieve a specific goal.


Implications on the learning process

Brunerís learning theory has direct implications for teaching practices. Here are some of these implications:

1.     Instruction must be appropriate to the level of the learners. For example, being aware of the learnersí learning modes (enactive, iconic, symbolic) will help you plan and prepare appropriate materials for instruction according to the difficulty that matches learnersí level.

2.     The teachers must revisit the material to enhance knowledge. Building on pre-taught ideas to grasp the full formal concept is of paramount importance according to Bruner. Feel free to re-introduce vocabulary, grammar points, and other topics now and then to push the students to deeper comprehension and longer retention.

3.     The material must be presented in a sequence giving the learners the opportunity to:
a. acquire and construct knowledge,
b. transform and transfer his learning.

4.     Students should be involved in using their prior experiences and structures to learn new knowledge.

5.     Help students to categorize new information to able to see similarities and differences between items.

6.     Teachers should assist learners in building their knowledge. This assistance should fade away as it becomes unnecessary.

7.     Teachers should provide feedback that is directed toward intrinsic motivation. Grades and competition are not helpful in the learning process. Bruner states that learners must ďexperience success and failure not as reward and punishment, but as informationĒ (Bruner 1961, p. 26)